Education Opinion

How Education Innovation Can Thrive at Scale

By Robert E. Slavin — December 08, 2011 3 min read
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In a recent blog, Rick Hess explains “Why Education Innovation Tends to Crash and Burn.” His analysis of why promising innovations so often flame out does a good job of describing the situation as it has been for many years. He notes that many innovations depend initially on exceptional funding, rare expertise, temporary enthusiasm, or one-off policies unlikely to be maintained for long, and discusses the problems of trying to innovate in entrenched institutions.

These factors may all be important in explaining how things have been. Where I take issue with Hess is in his suggestions for building support for innovations going forward: Keeping innovations simple, inexpensive, and located outside of traditional institutions. None of these characterize the few proven innovations that have made a difference for many years, and changes now happening in this arena may greatly improve the chances that today’s proven innovations will also thrive. For example, our Success for All whole-school approach celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and works with about 1,000 schools and has impacted over 2 million children. Reading Recovery, a tutoring model for struggling first graders, is even older, and continues in hundreds of schools.

Across effective innovations and programs that have “beaten the odds” to maintain scale amid changing policies and trends, there are several common factors:
1. They have strong evidence of effectiveness.
2. They can be funded by stable funding sources not dependent on philanthropy
(mainly, Title I).
3. They are invariably supported by strong organizations, and committed networks of dedicated educators.
4. They communicate a very clear vision of what must be done to improve student outcomes and a clear path to achieve this vision.
5. They provide intensive professional development in the early years of implementation and then follow up to maintain quality over time, usually indefinitely.

These factors are much at variance with those Hess suggests. Remember, we’re talking about innovations that make a meaningful difference for children, not just better AV equipment. Proven approaches tend not to be cheap or simple. The successful innovations I know about are relatively complex (because they provide a lot of PD), and mostly operate in ordinary Title I schools.

The handful of successful innovations have, as Hess suggests, had to overcome considerable obstacles, and they have survived as much despite as because of the current system. Many others are no longer among us. Yet the conditions that doomed many promising innovations are readily changeable, and are changing.

The essence of the change is increasing respect for evidence in education and related fields, at least at the policy level. When evidence of effectiveness becomes a basis for program adoption, then innovators with proven solutions will thrive. A dynamic of this kind is apparent in Investing in Innovation (i3) and in similar programs in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. These federal initiatives target funding to programs with strong, replicated evidence of positive outcomes. A policy culture supporting evidence does not require new systems of governance, new (unsustainable) funding, or other changes. Existing school systems and existing funding sources can support innovation if government simply provides information and incentives to use existing resources for proven approaches. For example, encouraging schools to use (existing) Title I, SIG, or special education funding on proven programs could make a world of difference in the dissemination and maintenance of innovations - and in outcomes for children. Innovations that can improve student achievement will rarely, if ever, come in the form of a simple, low cost silver bullet. Pretending otherwise only distracts from our focus on innovations that are truly scalable and sustainable.

Editor’s note: Dr. Slavin’s organization, the Success for All Foundation, is a recipient of a federal Investing in Innovation (i3) fund grant.

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